Column: Please don’t mention Olive Garden

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Will there ever be an Olive Garden in Berrien County?

This is a question many have asked over the years and continue to ask this business reporter whenever a new development begins. Hence the meaning behind this column.

The answer to this is, probably not. And yet, any time a store closes or a building is on the cusp of a renovation, my email is flooded with this very question.

For those who don’t know (or haven’t bothered to read my story), The Herald-Palladium reported on the recent construction by the Secretary of State’s Office in Benton Township. The Orchards Park Shopping Center began its expansion by adding on a few store fronts to its existing buildings.

There are still mounds of dirt being pushed to make way for an expanded parking lot, but the project is expected to bring more business to the retail hub of the Twin Cities area.

With the stores not even built yet, here’s the conversation I had the other day concerning the expansion.

Stranger No.1: What’s going on near Wings Etc.?

Me: Oh, the Orchards Park Shopping Center is adding a few storefronts.

Stranger No. 1: Cool. Any chance one of those store will be an Olive Garden?

Me: Probably not.

Stranger No. 2: Really? Well, at least there might be one at 5 O’Clock.

When I began working here at the paper, one of the first stories I wrote was about the 5 O’Clock Sports Bar & Restaurant closing in May 2015. The general manager at the time was Michael Wittlieff, who now works for LECO Corp.

While many in the community spoke of the possibility of an Olive Garden opening up along the Red Arrow Highway corridor, Wittlieff has repeatedly said those rumors were untrue. In fact, Wittlieff doesn’t know where the rumors began.

It seems as though those hopes for never-ending bread sticks and unlimited soup were dashed away when the former sports bar was sold last month to a gentleman from Indiana, who plans to build a car care center.

In truth, the spot might have worked out well for the Italian restaurant.

I discovered this though research of my own. I was curious about the possibility of an Olive Garden opening here after so many of my co-workers kept asking me in a joking manner.

After a handful calls and emails, I was put in touch with Jessica Dinon. She works in media relations for Olive Garden, a division of Darden Restaurants Inc.

Darden Restaurants owns other stores, such as LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and Yard House. Until 2014, the multi-brand restaurant operator owned Red Lobster. With more than 800 Olive Garden locations in the United States, the closest ones to this region are in Indiana – Michigan City and Mishawaka.

Dinon said they don’t discuss or share specifics on how they choose the locations of future sites, but she did give me a quote for my column.

“We’re always looking at any potential sites and pass along any feedback we hear from any guests to the appropriate real estate teams.”

Luckily, I was able to get some insight into how locations are spotted.

Amid my attempted calls in getting in touch with Dinon, I stumbled across a friendly operator and explained my story. Before transferring me again to Dinon’s ever-expanding voicemail, she divulged that Olive Garden doesn’t license its stores to franchise owners in the U.S.

Instead, Darden Restaurants buys land – rather large quantities of property – to develop for a restaurant, and potentially other stores that can operate on the same piece of land.

Because of this it becomes a harder chance to see Olive Garden opening in Berrien County.

But again, that’s why many people pegged an Olive Garden for the prime 5 O’Clock real estate along Red Arrow Highway, which is near the I-94 exit in Stevensville and across the road from Meijer.

It also likely means the new development by the Secretary of State’s Office won’t get an Olive Garden because the land is owned by another developer.

So now, hopefully, any rumors or questions about Olive Garden can be put to bed because I’ve exhausted all options on the story. That, and I’m more of a Chick-fil-A kind of guy.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2017)


Time’s up for 5 O’Clock: Restaurant to be demolished in favor of ‘car care center’

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — After sitting dormant for nearly two years, the 5 O’Clock Sports Bar & Restaurant has a new owner.

And no, it isn’t Olive Garden.

Haji Tehrani, CEO and president of Drive and Shine, bought the property at 5000 Red Arrow Highway in February with the intention of opening a car wash in Stevensville.

“We are in the car care business,” Tehran said in a Thursday phone interview. “We offer oil changes, car washes and detailing. In car washing, we do it in full service. I prefer to think of it as a ‘car care center.’”

Tehrani owns six other car wash stations throughout Indiana, including ones in Lake, Elkhart and St. Joseph counties.

This will be the company’s first venture in the Michigan market. Tehrani, whose car wash operations serve the northern half of Indiana, said they have also considered locations in southern Indiana.

“The property was attractive to us,” Tehrani said when asked about the former sports bar. “We don’t have a target date for construction. We have quite a bit of holdings in real estate, but with this being right off I-94 and across from Meijer, it seemed like a no-brainer.”

Tehrani said he and his company drove by the property several times before reaching out to its seller.

Drive and Shine had actually shown interest in another Southwest Michigan location a couple years ago. However, like a lot of business dealings, Tehrani said that fell through.

“The building will go down,” Tehrani said in reference to 5 O’Clock. “In its current condition, that would serve us no purpose. It would be more cost effective to start from scratch. We’ve already had one bid on what it will take.”

Saying goodbye

Michael Wittlieff, the former general manager of the sports bar, has made no secret of his aspirations for selling the business and having a third party renovate the place to its former glory.

Now that a car wash will open in place of the sports bar, the chances of a restaurant opening along that corridor property are slim to none.

“It’s like owning a boat. You love it the day you buy it, and you’re happy the day you sell it,” Wittlieff said. “We had a lot of great times in there. I’m excited for myself and our family to take our own adventures.”

In mid December, Wittlieff and others placed everything in the building on the auction block in an online liquidation sale through

When the sports bar closed in May 2015, Wittlieff said there was a potential buyer out of Chicago in the works. However, the deal ended up falling through.

“We tried to hold off as long as possible. However, both my parents passed away within the last six moths and life hit us all,” Wittlieff said. “It is what it is and we took the offer from Haji. I’m excited to see what it will become.”

While many in the community spoke of the possibility of an Olive Garden setting up shop on the corridor, Wittlieff has repeatedly said those rumors were untrue.

The restaurant, formerly known as Win Schuler’s, was closed by the Schuler family before opening again in January 2006 as 5 O’Clock.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 31, 2017)

From Disney World with love: Whirlpool group raises money for charities, in its own way


By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Jasper Huff smiled when he was brought into a room where everyone was wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

The 3-year-old and his family were taken to the upstairs cafeteria at Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus on Thursday, where he was treated to a send-off party courtesy of the home appliance maker and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The cafeteria was transformed into a “glimpse of Disney” for a reason. Jasper had brain cancer and was 10 months into remission. He and his family were heading to Disney World where Jasper would meet Mickey Mouse.

However, the reason Jasper’s send-off party was at Whirlpool’s Riverview Campus was because of an employee group that had raised money to fund the boy’s wish.

The group is known as WhEAT, or the Whirlpool Employee Activities Team.

WhEAT isn’t an employee resource group, so it isn’t found on the appliance maker’s website next to ERG’s like PRIDE or the Veterans’ Network. However, it still does work within the community.

How WhEAT began

It started with Whirlpool’s senior management looking for an opportunity for employees to group together to enhance engagement and come up with ideas for local charities.

Lisa Kiewel, a shared services operations manager at Whirlpool, said the group formed in 2008 – not too long after she joined the Benton Harbor-based company.

It’s grown considerably since its inception.

In its first year, Kiewel said the group of employees raised $2,000. Last year, about $15,000 was collected and donated to local charities. They do so by holding events like bake sales and can drives year-round.

Ashley Stickney, a shared services specialist senior at Whirlpool, said the group’s purpose involves engagement for the WhEAT team and includes the quarterly charity fundraisers.


Jasper Huff, 3, pins a ribbon on a Mickey Mouse replica during a send-off party Thursday afternoon. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

“When I first started there weren’t positions because it’s just employee-run,” Stickney said. “Management doesn’t come in and run the meetings. We decided what positions there would be in the organization and that structure has led to more funding for charities.”

There are normally 80 to 90 people who make up the group, which fluctuates yearly. About 16 people handle the planning and organizational aspects.

Stickney said the organizations they choose to work with come organically. Other than the Make-A-Wish Foundation, WhEAT has collaborated with the Humane Society, Lory’s Place and Harbor House.

“A lot of times it’s something that somebody has a personal connection with in the group,” Stickney said. “Make-A-Wish was chosen because one of our team members had a child whose wish was granted to them.”

The charities and goals for the employee group have grown substantially from the beginning.

Kiewel said they would do small things within the office when the group began in 2008. But now it’s gotten to the point where they hold their own version of “The Amazing Race” that sends employees to different businesses in the Twin Cities.

Meeting Mickey

The Make-A-Wish fundraising effort came about through the help of a week-long effort and donated goods from local vendors.

From Doughnut Mondays to Waffle Wednesdays, Kiewel said WhEAT eventually raised enough to have the local foundation match it and grant a full wish to Jasper.

Jasper’s family was put in touch with the foundation through a cancer clinic, who was then selected for the matched amount.

Dana Cooper-Hayes, a volunteer wish granter with Make-A-Wish, said the Whirlpool group set the bar with its send-off party Thursday.

“When we interview a child, we ask them everything they like,” Cooper-Hayes said. “We showed Jasper videos in ways of finding what lights him up. At one point he went up and hugged a Mickey Mouse balloon. With that in mind, Whirlpool did a great job with the party.”

Now the Huffs, a family from Benton Harbor, will leave for Disney World on April 5 for six days. While in Florida, they plan on visiting Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios.

Amid the laughing children and pizza party, Jessica Huff, Jasper’s mother, said she was thankful for her son’s opportunity to see “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

“It means a lot after all he’s been through,” Huff said. “We had a couple close calls where we didn’t think he would survive the night. We know the reality of this cancer and appreciate everything that everyone has done.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 31, 2017)

Analyzing the Benton Harbor school district’s partnership agreement


Superintendent Dr. Shelly Walker speaks during a Benton Harbor schools’ partnership agreement meeting Wednesday at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — For more than three hours, Benton Harbor Area School officials spoke, asked questions, and took suggestions from area businesses about a proposed partnership agreement designed to save the district.

Benton Harbor Superintendent Shelly Walker led the discussion in a conference room inside the Mendel Center, while community and business representatives, page by page, read through the first draft of the agreement Wednesday.

Walker told attendees the agreement was the district’s way of gaining financial support from the community and area businesses. She said the district hopes partners would serve all five schools in the district, and not just the three schools being targeted by the state.

With several documents produced at the meeting, about nine businesses and organizations were listed as partners.

After the meeting, Walker said there were more partners that showed interest last week. However, due to the quick turnaround from last week’s meeting, Walker said they didn’t have enough time to respond.

“The more you can collaborate and work with others, the better outcomes you will always get,” Walker said. “I anticipate there is going to be more businesses to partner with. But for now, I’m hoping people will have time to digest everything.”

This was the second partnership agreement meeting, which took place a week from the first one.

Last Thursday, representatives from the state’s School Reform Office said the school district needed to enter into a partnership with the Michigan Department of Education by April 30. Otherwise, the Dream Academy would be closed and a CEO would be appointed to take charge of International Academy at Hull and STEAM at MLK after the school year ends.


Benton Harbor School Board president Joseph Taylor joins members of the communities as well as local officials during a Benton Harbor schools’ partnership agreement meeting Wednesday at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

The partnership agreement was handed out to attendees, a section at a time, to look over for inspection. Each person in attendance was given a lunch to eat and openly discussed the benchmarks and goals laid out for potential partners – including the superintendent and Board of Education – that would need to be accomplished in 18- and 36-month intervals.

These goals and benchmarks were created based on what businesses said they would be willing to do, following last week’s meeting.

By using a statistical approach to project where the district’s students should be within the next 18 and 36 months, various goals for the three schools in questions were laid out in reference to proficiency and growth.

“I am not happy with 30 percent proficiency, but statistically speaking, this is where we need to be,” Walker said.

Michigan Department of Education Superintendent Brian Whiston said as everyone goes through the process, the state and the district is going to learn what works and what doesn’t.

“They (BHAS administration) are doing things we would do with this partnership agreement,” Whiston assured the meeting’s attendees. “I don’t ever want the state to take over the district. That would not be in the students’ best interest.”

A new perspective

With a change of venue, there also seemed to be a change in tone among attendees.

After the meeting, BHAS Board President Joseph Taylor said he thought the second round of talks was more effective than what transpired last Thursday.

“I think this time around, Superintendent Whiston put the guns down and we all came out with a new perspective,” Taylor said. “He had a changed attitude from last week’s meeting. The agreement was probably 80 percent good and maybe 20 percent bad.”

In reference to this, Taylor said there were certain items the Board of Education did not agree with.

“We had a problem with the superintendent’s goals as well as the board’s (goals),” Taylor said. “They (the state) have overstepped their bounds on some of the items they’ve wanted the board to do. … However, I feel confident the agreement will be signed. We just have a couple line items we have to work on to make it feasible for all concerns.

“The bottom line for this agreement, is student achievement.”


The public reads over a number of district goals during a Benton Harbor schools’ partnership agreement meeting Wednesday at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

All interested partners will next meet with school officials at 10 a.m. April 25 in a yet-to-be-chosen location. Walker told attendees they had until April 7 to send anymore suggestions to the district before a final draft is created.

Walker said what’s driving the early deadline for the agreement to be signed is the school millage that will be voted on during a May 2 special election.

By having a partnership agreement signed and in place, Walker said she hopes voters will feel more assured in voting in favor of the millage.

In January, SRO released a list of 38 schools, including three in Benton Harbor, that are on its list to be closed or put under a CEO because they have been in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s Top-To-Bottom list for three consecutive years.

Dream Academy was a charter school until it joined Benton Harbor Area Schools in the fall as the district’s alternative high school.

The other two schools on the list were reconfigured in the fall so all students in kindergarten through second grade attend Hull, and students in third through fifth grades attend STEAM. Before that, both schools taught first through eighth grades.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 30, 2017)

Lincoln Township amends hotel, motel ordinances

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Motels will be a thing of the past in Lincoln Township, and hotels gained some additional ground, following a joint meeting between Lincoln Township officials Tuesday night.

With a slew of ordinances to discuss and amend, the township’s Planning Commission and Board of Trustees sat together to talk about hotel and motel restrictions within two districts.

Officials agreed to amend the township’s ordinances to permit hotels in the highway commercial district and allow hotels in the commercial mixed use district as a special use. By allowing the hotels in the commercial district as a special use, any proposed hotel would require a public hearing and comment from residents.

Some trustees and commissioners bristled at the option of not including the special use to the commercial district.

“I don’t want what’s going on at M-139 (in Benton Township) where it’s just one hotel after another,” said Treasurer Terrie Smith. “It wouldn’t look good for the corridor.”

The amended ordinance addressed hotel height, as well.

In the previous ordinance, hotels in the commercial district were capped at 35 feet or two and a half stories. Now, the ordinance allows the hotels in the commercial district a maximum height of 41 feet and no limit on stories. The reason for the height increase and removal of storied measurement was because most hotels are now three or four stories tall.

The maximum height was set at 41 feet, instead of a solid 40, because of extra dirt or gravel that is often laid at the base to ensure a structure is level. Doing so raises the height of a building.

“Sometimes (hotel developers) have to bring in some kind of fill to level the land,” said Mike Freehling, chairman of the Planning Commission. “Usually you don’t put your slab at natural grade for drainage issues. If you’re going from the ground, we gave them that extra foot. Sometimes you lose a few inches in the process.”

Freehling said the idea for the amendments came up after the Fairfield Inn and Suites hotel on Red Arrow Highway was rezoned.

Developers of the Fairfield Inn were able to get the site rezoned to highway commercial due to a question over its elevator. The site was originally zoned commercial mixed use on the portion nearest to Red Arrow, which restricted the structure to two and a half stories.

In addition to the hotel ordinance, township officials agreed to ban future motels from being built within those two districts. Existing motels, such as the Super 8 along Red Arrow, would be grand-fathered into the amended ordinance.

A hotel is often considered to be a building with interior corridors that link to guest rooms, and they typically offer more guest services to customers. A motel does not have these interior corridors.

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

One of the recurring ordinances that has been discussed among trustees and planning commissioners is in reference to signs.

The discussion led to the pole sign amendment that was recently skirted by a local hotel.

When the pole sign for the Baymont Inn & Suites along Red Arrow Highway fell a couple of years ago, the hotel replaced it with another pole sign after going to the township’s Zoning Board of Appeals. This proved to be a way around the sign ordinance that was created to bring more monument signs – and reduce the tall signs seen along highways – to the commercial and highway districts.

Township attorney Scott Dienes told officials they should discuss the sign ordinance more and see what should be made clearer.

Trustee Marc Florian, who also serves on the Planning Commission, referred to the sign issue as “an elephant that couldn’t be addressed in one night.”

Officials at the joint meeting discussed the ordinance for a bit before creating a committee to lead discussions in amending the ordinance, while taking pictures of signs around town to determine what the township should do.

The next joint meeting, which will center around the sign ordinance, is at 6 p.m. April 19.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 29, 2017)

Benton Harbor Parks Conservancy faces uncertain future

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — The Benton Harbor Parks and Recreation Conservancy met for an hour Tuesday and was unable to take any action.

This was because the conservancy was one person shy of a quorum.

The conservancy, which has been without a president since June 2016, met for its annual meeting for all members to elect new officials. But because there weren’t enough members present, the ones who made it to Tuesday’s meeting spent their time discussing how the nonprofit organization should operate in the future.

“If we don’t get members here, we don’t exist,” said John Egelhaaf of the conservancy’s executive committee. Egelhaaf led the board meeting due to the absence of a president and vice president. “That’s the harsh truth.”

The conservancy works as a nonprofit that manages Benton Harbor’s 13 parks.

This was the first time the conservancy had met since Nov. 22. The Jan. 17 meeting was canceled.

In November, members discussed the option of hiring an executive director – something the nonprofit has never had. On Tuesday, there was only talk off attendance and filling committees.

Committees various members volunteered for, which required no action from the conservancy, included the Adopt-A-Park Committee, Parks Management Committee and the Bylaws/Membership Committee.

“We need to recruit members and look into the bylaws on how membership changes,” Egelhaaf said, referring to the Bylaws/Membership Committee. “Finding a quorum is enough of a challenge as it is.”

Darwin Watson, Benton Harbor’s city manager and conservancy member, said they should look at who is still listed as a member and make the appropriate updates.

Among those listed as active members for the conservancy is Kysre Gondrezick, who plays basketball at the University of Michigan.

A few members asked whether they could decrease the number of members in order to ensure there would be a quorum at meetings.

Ironically, due to the nonprofit’s bylaws, the conservancy would need a quorum in order to do so.

Kinexus fallout

Egelhaaf said the conservancy has had a hard time finding an organization for bookkeeping purposes after Kinexus dropped out of doing so toward the end of 2016.

Egelhaaf said Cornerstone Alliance had a sympathetic ear and was able to help out in that capacity.

“We still don’t have the administrative aspect,” Egelhaaf said. “All of the agenda building, minute taking, the meeting prep is not happening. The executive committee is doing its best to fill that void.”

The conservancy still holds its meetings in a conference room inside Kinexus’ building in Benton Harbor.

Brian Saxton, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor and conservancy member, told members the conservancy is at a crossroad as a result.

“Kinexus is gone. They said they no longer wish to provide the administrative support to this organization,” Saxton explained Tuesday. “We lost all of the administrative functions and were given a box from Kinexus, full of files and maybe a CD or two. That’s what we have. There’s no infrastructure. We need to ask ourselves, does this organization have the resources to survive?”

That question, along with who will be voted the conservancy’s president, will likely be up for further discussion at the organization’s next meeting on May 16.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 29, 2017)

The impact of $4.14: Watervliet girl makes an impression at Krasl Art Center

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — About two weeks ago during a school field trip, Aubrey Noe did something very unexpected.

The 10-year-old was visiting the Krasl Art Center with her classmates from Watervliet’s North Elementary School as part of a program to help schoolchildren understand art.

As part of the program, students tour the center, learn about art and make some of their own in the process. There is normally a $2 fee per student.

However, some of the school groups can’t afford the cost of the program or transportation. Julia Gourley, executive director of the Krasl, said the center sometimes provides scholarships to the schools when necessary.

Despite this, Gourley said North Elementary School still invited its students to contribute. That’s when Aubrey, a fourth-grader, submitted her donation.

“We normally get a Ziploc bag of coins and dollar bills,” Gourley said. “We began to unravel all the stuff and here is this handwritten note from this girl.”

In the letter, Aubrey noted she understood there was a $2 donation, but instead gave the art center $4.14.

She not only wrote in cursive, but printed the message to ensure Gourley and her staff could read it.

“I’ve been here for 10 years and I don’t remember a donation coming in that was this sweet and had this much thought put into it,” Gourley said. “She said that ‘you told us we didn’t have to pay anything, so I decided to give more money.’”

The small act of kindness led to a donation effort from others in the community.

Friends of the Krasl Art Center were so inspired by Aubrey’s generosity, they pledged to match her gift of $4.14, launching Aubrey’s Matching Gift Campaign. Gourley said a special donation box was placed in Krasl’s lobby.

As of Monday, the campaign has raised $72.81.

An inspiring gift

Gourley said they next went to visit Aubrey at her school, where they discovered her mother had no idea she had done this.

“I wanted to thank her for her gift, and I wanted her to know her gift inspired others. I was also curious what prompted her to do so,” Gourley said. “When I asked her why she decided to do that, she said she wanted to support the business because she thought it was important that all people look at art.”

Mallory Noe, Aubrey’s mom, received a call from the school’s principal, due to Krasl’s visit.

When Noe was told how inspired the Krasl staff was by her daughter’s donation, she too felt inspired.

“I was kind of surprised. It’s nice to know my little girl can think like that and want to help people,” Noe said. “What I loved the most is that she did it on her own with the last bit of money that she had.”

Noe said she was aware that the school had asked students to bring $2 for the Krasl program, so she gave Aubrey $2 to donate. Unknown to her, Aubrey took an additional $2.14 she had been saving to add to the recommended donation.

The mother and daughter are both artistically inclined. Noe enjoys painting and Aubrey is no stranger to doodling.

On April 2, Noe said they are going back to the art center for Family Day.

“She loves art, likes to doodle and sketch. She just wanted other kids to enjoy the art as well,” Noe said of Aubrey. “She’s always had a big heart, she’s such a sweet girl. I hope she continues to do this the rest of her life and inspire others to do the same.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 28, 2017)